Theologians, myth, and religious peace
For peace among religions, ban theologians and return to myth.
Let me begin with astrobiologists (AB for short), sometimes called exobiologists. These folks devote themselves to the scientific study of life outside the Earth. They write learned papers, they hold conferences, and they teach university courses, all about this fascinating subject. Now, an AB needs to be made of stern stuff. Where most scientists experience the satisfaction of learning something about their subject during their careers, no ABs have yet learned anything meaningful about their subject, nor have they learned whether the subject they've dedicated their lives to actually exists! So they're perhaps better called "metascientists", i.e., they're folks who study the potential parameters of the discipline of astrobiology, in case it turns out that there is such a discipline. As I say, they're made of something special.
No profession has been responsible for more wars and persecutions than theologians. Their wrongheaded interpretations of the ancient mythic bases of our religions have divided mankind into warring camps of mortal enemies. Only a return to a mythic understanding of our religions will show us the way to religious peace.
So why write of ABs when I should be on theologians? Well, they're rather in the same boat, aren't they? In fact, theologians are ABs of a sort, though for some reason they're hardly ever invited to the same conferences. Theologians study the ultimate exobiological life form, the great transcendent Cosmic Creative Spirit, variously given credit for creative and maintenance activities in the cosmos and on Earth. And like other ABs they suffer from a lack of hard information about their subject matter. No, I mis-speak. I've known a number of theologians, but I have yet to know one who has actually suffered from a lack of data. Most (like ABs) seem to revel in the opportunity for creative thought afforded by the paucity of fact in their subject. (Let's admit it: gaining expertise becomes so much more manageable.)
There's a bit of wisdom that in the computer age is known by the term GIGO. "Garbage in, garbage out." No matter how sophisticated the computer program or system analysis, it cannot add accuracy or credence to the data submitted to it. (Unfortunately it can add precision, i.e., it can give a very exact wrong answer.) Someone once commented about accuracy in governmental social statistics in England to the effect, "We have hundreds of highly paid managers overseeing thousands of skilled analysts subjecting millions of data points on social welfare to the most rigorous statistical procedures to produce the most admirably precise information; while the input is supplied by the night watchman who puts down whatever he damn well pleases."
And so it is with theologians,whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. Starting with the rather innocent mythic material that these faiths are based on, they have collectively spent millions of hours manipulating, altering, hair-splitting, and adding detailed dogma that would set their belief-system apart from others. By converting flexible myth-based faiths into dogmatic religions, each of which claims sole possession of spiritual truth, theologians have intentionally separated mankind into camps of mutual suspicion and hatred, and have directly brought about much of the bloodshed that has plagued the world over the past several millennia. Without exception, every religious war and persecution – the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Wars of Religion in France and England, centuries of European wars tied to religious differences, the unspeakable persecutions of Jews, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the miserable legacy of colonial Christian chauvinism and missionary work, the mutual slaughter of Hindus and Muslims in 1940's India, the present agonies of Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Arabia, and the rest of the middle East – all these can be traced to the work of theologians. But let's be fair: Most theologians haven't the capacity to start more than a minor skirmish. It's the major theologians – the ones who are venerated in their faith – who deserve the honor for major wars. And it's the great innovative founders – men like the unknown rabbi in the 10th century BC(E) who first committed the Israelite myths to papyrus, Paul the apostle, Mohammad, a few popes, and Luther – who must get the credit for most spilt blood.
The human mind craves answers, not just to problems that may be investigated objectively – for that we do science – but also to questions that are, in the end, apparently unanswerable. Some tens of thousands of years ago our paleolithic African ancestors made a brilliant discovery, and then an even more brilliant invention. Having emerged out of the presumed intellectual fog of our apparent ancestor, Homo erectus, these first modern humans found themselves blessed/cursed with a self-aware and analytic brain, able to – and needing to – ask "the big questions", questions that had not been asked on Earth before: "Where did we come from? Were we made? Who made us? Where are we going? Is time eternal? Is there someone out there?"
These stone age ancestors were not the dullards of legend and cartoons. No, they had the same brain as us and were every bit as bright as we are. And in asking the "big questions" they came to a resolution that bespeaks a mind of astounding sophistication: They concluded first, and this is their great discovery – perhaps after eons of wrestling with the questions – that these questions were unanswerable. The answers were unknowable! That's not only a bit of intellectual honesty unusual in any age, but it's as close to truth as philosophy and science has come even today! The ancients had discovered a transcendental dimension to human existence and a natural bound to human knowledge. Having come to this conclusion, which must have been as unsatisfying for them as the discovery of irrational numbers was to Pythagoras, our ancient ancestors would have puzzled over how to deal with it. The human mind would always crave answers to these questions. But answers were not forthcoming through rational thought.
Now, having made this discovery, one of the greatest philosophical advances in human history, they proceeded to create their monumental invention, which was to satisfy the human race for tens of thousands of years, if not for all time: They created gods, and stories about gods. Their divine myths – brilliant and appropriately fantastic stories about gods creating the Universe, the Earth, and mankind – supplied answers and quieted the curiosity that would otherwise have been frustrated through the ages. The religious myths eventually combined into a coherent mythology, and as tribes went their separate ways around the Earth the god-stories and the gods themselves were modified to suit local and current conditions and needs. Religious diversity happened.
These mythic oral stories were to early man completely symbolic, metaphoric. The action of the stories, even the names and character of the gods themselves, were flexible and changed with some frequency. (We can follow the changes in the myths along the course of early human migrations.) The meat and meaning of the myths lay in their underlying message, the message of the existence of a sphere of transcendental higher beings which brought us into being as temporary and incomplete images of themselves; a true reality of which we could know nothing with certainty, but which we could touch through the stories that were chanted by the tribe's shaman at night around the fire, and through the communal rites that belonged inextricably to the stories.
Not surprisingly, the myths of the various tribes contained much of the same story material: Most told of the creation of mankind by the gods – in some the gods vomited up humans and other beings, or man was formed from clay or dust (as told by the Hebrew tribes), or caused to grow out of the Earth as plants, or popped out of a divine egg, or any of a dozen other schemes. Many myths told of an initial period of perfect, blissful community between man and the gods, such as the Hebrew Eden or various other paradise stories around the world. But inevitably (since we know our communities are hardly perfect any longer) a falling out with the gods occurred, and mankind was separated from the gods. Some of the myths have it that the gods lived with man on Earth, but got fed up with man's native iniquity or bothersomeness and ascended into their heaven, leaving man to his own devices. Others had mankind starting out in heaven with the gods, only to be chased down to Earth. We are, of course, familiar with the Hebrew myth, where the god Yahweh chased his creations out of his garden and cursed them for all time with various pains, including death.
As we would expect, most of the stories with which we're so familiar from the Hebrew scriptures derive from the myths of other, older civilizations: The gods regretting the creation of man and deciding to wipe him out with a flood or other disaster; but always saving one family (our dear Noah has other names in other myths) to repopulate the Earth. Another common mythic tale is of a god coming to Earth to fertilize a select woman who gives birth to a god-man. In Hindu tales this son of God, Krishna, is the redeemer of mankind, prefiguring the role of Jesus. Myths around the world also tell of the ongoing battle between the divine forces of good against evil spirits, and of the great battle that shall annihilate the world and bring about final peace and reconciliation for mankind. Isn't it familiar? These ancient myths from around the world are echoed and retold in the Jewish/Christian/Islamic Holy Bible.
After a few tens of thousands of years, as writing systems were invented, some chance versions of the ancient myths were written down and would eventually become the bases of our "modern" religions. Enter the theologian. It seems inevitable now in retrospect that, like flies on a carcass, hair-splitters with agendas – theologians, first Judaic, then Christian and Islamic – would swarm over the writings that once had been oral myths. The theologians declared the written versions of the earlier flexible myths to have become absolute final truth. Over the centuries, and particularly in the Christian Church of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, more theologians – hundreds of theologians – busied themselves with creative hair-splitting of the "sacred" texts. With each hair split, they also split the believers, eventually into nearly countless factions who each believed in the absolute truth of their own theologian's particular hair-splitting. In Islam also, Muhammad was barely cold before their theologians set upon each other in the same deadly splitting game, quickly resulting in millions dead.
We have seen the results of all these divisions in the western religions over the past couple of millennia. From a human species where tribes worshipped the same God in unimportantly different ways we have arrived, thanks to our theologians, at a point where each of dozens of sects of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam preach and believe that they, and only they, are headed for eternal bliss while the believers of all the other sects who worship the same God in oh-so-importantly different ways are doomed to eternal damnation, and perhaps God would be grateful if we speed their departure. The result of all this hard theological work has been millennia of ever more blood, torture, pogroms, genocides and other gruesome atrocities, all to please God.
Well, we can't blame theologians for all the ills of the world. But we can and should blame these men of God, first for making religious dogma out of mythic tales – teaching absolutism in a subject where they haven't had the honesty to admit that they actually know nothing; then for dreaming up picayune distinctions in doctrine that have dug deep chasms among believers, chasms that they knew would run with blood; and most of all for playing with the religious emotions of millions of believers. True believers, as theologians and churchmen know well, follow willy-nilly the teachings of their local priests, who teach willy-nilly the doctrine chosen by their church leaders from among competing theologians. In this cruel power-game, while the popes, bishops, rabbis, ayatollas, mullahs, and other power players amuse themselves with their doctrinal exegeses, their believers, who have no stake in this fight, no interest in hating other believers or denigrating their faiths, are yanked like marionettes by their emotions, are taught that equally sincere believers following other theologians are doomed, and may be commanded to help God "save" or even kill such mis-believers, all of which has led to antipathy – often violent antipathy – among the faiths. And the religious leaders who have brought about the bloodletting for God have known exactly what they were doing. The expendable blood of the believers has been the oil powering their immoral game; cynically manipulated divisive doctrine has been the fodder for their believers' emotional attachment.
Is there a way out of this morass of deadly factionalism? Can the western religions find their way to a universal brotherhood in faith? It won't happen from the top; the religious leaders and orders who have grown rich and powerful on fractionation will never give up the privilege of having exclusive believers. No one can know whether a movement to unite faiths by abandoning dogma and returning to basic beliefs about divinity could succeed, or how it could even start and be taken seriously, but the formula that in the end could bring peace among the monotheistic "Abrahamic" religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) can already be suggested, as follows:
A return to "mythic" thinking and to the honesty of the mythmakers is needed. To achieve true ecumenism, the world's religions must join together in a theologically limited, but broadly applicable creed, which largely acknowledges their uncertainty, even ignorance, of matters divine. Here's an example:
I call such a basic faith a return to mythic thinking because it affirms, as did the mythmakers, the unknowability of anything about God or about God's dimension. It acknowledges, as did the mythmakers, that our man-made stories about God are valid for the spiritual meaning they have for us, whatever their cultural variety. It sees developed doctrine as human constructs which we acknowledge as speculative, and which must not separate us one from another. Such a return to the mythic mode of thought, recognizing the limitation of our knowledge while accommodating the diversity of practice, appears to be the one course that could bring about a cessation of religious hatreds. There would be very little left to fight over. Now, perhaps that's a problem in itself ...
- We believe in an eternal, transcendental, spiritual dimension of existence, apart from the temporal physical existence of our experience.
- We believe in a spiritual Creator of the physical and spiritual universe.
- We believe the human race to be imbued by the Creator with a reflection of the Creator's spirit, which potentiates spiritual commerce between the two.
- We know no more about the Creator.
- We honor the Creator and the Creator's creation in stories, songs, and rites that have spiritual meaning for us, aware that these are human constructs; we rejoice in the cultural diversity of these valid reflections of our varied experiences.
- We believe in this guiding ethic for the human race, consistent with our sense of the Creator's intent, with the power and beauty of creation, and with the human spirit: "To universally care for one another and for the world in which we have been placed."